Hoof Prints column: School must help halt the spread of cyberbullying

Editor’s note: This piece is provided through Hoof Prints, a partnership between the Stillwater Gazette and The Pony Express, Stillwater Area High School’s student newspaper. See more teen views and news from the Pony Express each Wednesday in the Gazette.

AnnaKaulWebBY ANNA KAUL – THE PONY EXPRESS

A computer can be a teenager’s most dangerous weapon if in the wrong hands. Its force lies in its anonymity. If a teenager points a gun into an innocent crowd of students, they know to run. Similarly threatening shooters, sometimes unknowingly, use a web of encryption to hurt other teenagers using only their words. However, instead of running, many teens simply stand in the line of fire.

In Minnesota, 25 percent of teenagers have thought about killing themselves, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth. A study based in Britain found that at least half of all suicides among young people are due to bullying. Cyberbullying is an epidemic, finding no barriers and knowing no boundaries in its spread through schools across the nation, including Stillwater Area High School. While it would be easy for people to look the other way and not handle the issue, complacency is a catalyst, intensifying the breadth of online bullying’s threats.

The recent “Stillwater Anon” page floating around the social media site Twitter let students “anonymously” send in messages to the creator, originally posting each message without names attached. The messages were sometimes cruel, sometimes crude, sometimes brutally honest and sometimes plain funny. The students put blind faith in the hands of the creator, who turned around and posted screenshots of each message along with the sender’s name after posting each confession. Everyone in the school knew who posted the good, the bad and the ugly. The creator of the page was hailed by many as a troubadour of justice.

Some say the page justly exposed the fake relationships and back-stabbing nature of many relationships at SAHS, though the page more honestly displayed the danger that lies in anonymity. Students posted things about other students that they would never say face-to-face. They posted things to intentionally hurt someone else with the safeguard that no one would ever know it was them.

These anonymous pages are not exclusive to Stillwater, and can be found in colleges like the page “Madison Confessions,” which posts anonymous confessions by UW-Madison students. Cyberbullies also transcend Twitter, using websites like ask.fm, which allows people to ask anonymous questions to those with an account. Many students at Stillwater have an account, and the questions asked of the students are often sexual, crude and explicit.

While many of the posts on “Stillwater Anon” were relatively harmless and did not single out a person or their behavior, some posts aimed directly at students and hit their marks. When posts go this far to damage someone’s reputation and use a school’s name to do it, it is the job of the administration to step in.

With the fallout of the page’s so called “coming-out,” nothing was done by Stillwater administrators to educate students about the dangers of cyberbullying. There was no announcement, no discussion, no warning. This silence sends the message that this behavior is acceptable. Once this message is sent, even anonymous posting that starts harmlessly can snowball into a serious problem.

After the heartbreaking story of a 12 year-old girl dead in Florida due to fellow students’ persistently cruel words over the Internet between 2012 and 2013, the obvious question is, where was everyone? Where were the student leaders? The teachers? Administrators? These officials have a duty to protect students from danger. Furthermore, administrators need to educate students about the harsh realities of cyberbullying. It can start as simply as having a seminar explaining the dangers of using hateful words on the Internet and the importance of minimizing these situations by staying off websites such as ask.fm.

Stillwater officials need to promote an atmosphere that does not tolerate cyberbullying and provides a network of help and support for victims. It needs to perpetuate a culture where students feel obligated to call out bullies and recognize when online harassment goes too far.

If a teenager brought a gun to school, students would run. Administrators would enact a safety plan. Counselors would announce that their doors were open for guidance and support. The community would be outraged. It is time for administrators to educate students to delete themselves on social media when anonymous bullies are aiming for them. It is time for schools to adopt safety procedures to combat cyberbullies. It is time we all recognize cyberbullying as the crisis it is and the lend the support its victims desperately need.

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